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Take the Money and Run

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Cruz Bustamante is living proof of one of the smartest things Woody Allen ever said: “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” The lieutenant governor has barely figured in the epic conflicts over the energy and budget crises that have roiled the Capitol the last few years, and has managed, by breaking his pledge not to run, to emerge as perhaps the Democrats’ best hope of hanging on to the governorship.

Who is Cruz Bustamante, this generally conservative, pro-business Democrat — the most prominent California backer of conservative Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, longtime chairman of the anti-liberal Democratic Leadership Council — who, without credentials, is running as a reinvented left-liberal in this recall election? And would Bustamante, who has read his only two policy speeches of this campaign word for word, even exist politically without his controversial political consultant and lobbying string puller, Richie Ross?

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bustamante has not been doing in-depth policy interviews. Also like Schwarzenegger, he has spent much time recently off the campaign trail, actually going silent for a week after his first major press conference as a candidate. He is said to have been studying the issues and trying to raise money. Given the veteran politician’s sometimes stumbling and evasive answers to recent questions on his state budget plan, his unlikely proposal to have the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulate gasoline prices, and his taking huge contributions from Indian casino interests in violation of the Proposition 34 contributions limits and a late-breaking state Fair Political Practices Commission opinion against the practice, that may have been a wise course on his and his handlers’ part. Bustamante, an avid promoter of California’s aggressively expansionist Indian casino interests, has taken some $3 million of casino money in recent days, including an astounding $2 million from one tribe, most of which he will launder into his gubernatorial campaign in violation of the state’s contribution limits.

When Bustamante unveiled his budget plan, which eschewed any specific budget cuts and called for $8 billion in tax increases (nearly 40 percent of which would rely on the passage of a constitutional amendment, a time-consuming and uncertain process), mostly on the wealthy and smokers and drinkers, he was asked what was wrong with Davis’ attempt to get a share of the burgeoning revenues of Indian casino interests, which currently pay nothing into the state’s general fund but profit greatly from state gaming compacts. “That number [$680 million, proposed by Davis] has no relation to any number which is the basis,” replied the cryptic lieutenant governor, before quickly turning to an unrelated question.

Asked at a gas-station press conference last Thursday about his proposal to use the state PUC to regulate gasoline prices —a popular-sounding solution but very difficult to pull off with the product of a complex global market — Bustamante, who co-authored the disastrous electric-power deregulation scheme that allowed out-of-state energy companies free from regulation to enter the state’s power market, shed little light beyond the soundbite for Labor Day weekend drivers. “This is an important commodity, and it should be regulated for the people,” he intoned, then made a brief stab at answering the actual question by noting that “even wharfage is a regulated utility.” As the Weekly was about to ask what that mystifying remark meant, L.A. Times reporter Matea Gold deflected the discussion at hand, jumping in with her only question to ask what the paper’s favored candidate thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tacky quip that Bustamante is “Gray Davis with a mustache and receding hairline.”

Returning to substance, the Weekly again asked the candidate how his plan might work. “There are oil refineries in California,” said Bustamante, who also noted that “there is not enough strategic reserve,” then retreated back to boilerplate about gasoline as “a very important commodity that must be regulated for the people.”

After appearing before the California Nations Indian Gaming Association at a closed-door session in which the casino tribes’ trade group heard private pitches for support from him, trailing conservative Republican candidate Tom McClintock, and Davis, Bustamante was asked what the casino tribes wanted from him. “Only respect,” he replied. In truth, they asked for much more than that, including the expediting of compacts for tribes that don’t yet have casinos and increases in the number of slot machines in already existing casinos. Sources say Bustamante was very responsive to these requests for “respect.”

Since the lieutenant governor has little power and few duties, it is unclear to many Capitol observers what Bustamante has been doing for much of the past five years. Friends say that he keeps busy. “He has lots of meetings,” says one. “He works at staying visible. He has briefings on the state Lands Commission,” which he serves on. “And briefings on CSU and UC [the California State University and University of California systems].”

Bustamante is on the board of each. He has been criticized for missing many CSU board meetings. “Cruz feels he can have the most impact with his time on the UC board,” explains his friend. “His Operation Gobble is in its 10th year,” notes another friend. “That is something that is very important to him and takes time.” Bustamante last year arranged the contribution of 15,000 turkeys and distributed them to underprivileged Californians last year at Thanksgiving. “He spent a lot of time working on the statistics course he needed to get his college degree,” says this friend. “It was a promise he made to his mother that he would go back and get that.”

 

Bustamante is the oldest of six children, raised in the small town of San Joaquin, not far outside Fresno, the capital of California’s Central Valley agricultural heartland. An internship with conservative Congressman B.F. Sisk during his college years turned the son of a barber who had wanted to be a butcher toward politics, so much so that he dropped out of college at Fresno State and did not finish until this year, in a specially designed program combining political science and ethnic studies.

Bustamante’s career is a product of term limits and Democratic catering to the Latino vote. In 1992 he was an unknown district aide to a term-limited Fresno assemblyman who leaped at a high-paying university job, allowing Bustamante, guided by consultant Richie Ross, to win the seat. When legendary Speaker Willie Brown was forced out by term limits and Republicans couldn’t take advantage, Bustamante, by now a “senior” Latino figure and a moderate who dealt well with Sacramento lobbyists, put together enough votes to serve briefly as speaker. Then, with $3 million raised from interests that thought they were contributing to the Assembly Democratic majority through the speaker, Bustamante used his status as the state’s highest-ranking Latino to clear the Democratic field for the impressive-sounding but mostly meaningless office of lieutenant governor.

Former top Bill Clinton aide–turned–L.A. investment banker John Emerson hired Bustamante for his first job in statewide politics, that of Fresno coordinator in Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “He was perfect for a local coordinator,” says Emerson, “because he got along well with everyone.

“He had no agenda that caused controversy with any of the players in Valley or Latino politics.” The future gubernatorial candidate was recommended to the Clinton campaign by Cal Dooley, the conservative Democratic congressman.

In the Assembly, Bustamante was a standard conservative Central Valley Democrat. Sierra Club lobbyist John White says Bustamante was “weak on pesticides and weak on endangered species.” United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta says he was “no friend of the farm worker. He was very friendly with the growers.” But as speaker, White and other environmentalists say, Bustamante made excellent appointments to the Coastal Commission.

The contradictions between the new Cruz and the old Cruz come out clearly in his relations with the United Farm Workers. The loyalist Democratic UFW just endorsed Bustamante over Labor Day weekend.

Democrats, worried about the immigrant Schwarzenegger’s appeal to Latinos, are anxious to use the symbolism of Cesar Chavez. But when the lieutenant governor joined last year’s march up the Central Valley to force Davis to finally sign a major farm-labor bill, there was widespread scoffing before he appeared. Bustamante did not stay long, walking less than a mile before departing in his state car.

This, despite the fact that the UFW’s chief political adviser is also Bustamante’s.

 

Bustamante never would have made it this far without Richie Ross. Ross is the idea man, the strategist and the muscle propelling the political rise of the undecorated and unremarkable second-in-command.

Ross got into politics the old-fashioned way; he was inspired. A Maryland seminary student in the late ’60s, Ross, like many concerned Catholics, answered the clarion call of Cesar Chavez’s farm workers movement, in which he met his wife, Juana.

After working with the UFW, Ross went into politics, rising to become the chief operative of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s political machine. Willie Brown was the master of the deal, in many respects the architect of broker state politics in California. The “Ayatollah of California politics,” as he referred to himself, in the eyes of most reformers turned the Capitol into a casino for the auctioning of access and brokering of interests. Under Willie Brown, special-interest fund-raising became paramount and policy committees were cherished for their monetary potential as, in Capitol-speak, “juice committees.”

As chief of staff to the speaker and as chief political consultant for all Assembly Democratic campaigns, Richie Ross was at the absolute center of Willie Inc. But all good things must come to an end, and the excesses of Brown’s record 15-year reign as Assembly speaker sparked the successful initiative to impose term limits.

As a private consultant, Ross cultivated a stable of political candidates, especially Latinos, and a powerful lobbying practice, representing Indian casinos, trial lawyers, insurers and a few labor unions.

An incident in June, in which Ross threatened and screamed at legislative staffers, pointed up his role in Capitol politics and prompted a session of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to discuss what many legislators call “the Richie problem.” “He’s raised a lot of eyebrows here,” says one, “with his clientele and his methods, working the electeds he’s put into office and lobbying them for his special-interest clients.” They fear also that he has the sort of pugnacious and power-oriented personality to abuse his influence.

Ross does indeed have a pugnacious personality. Fittingly, given the fact that his candidate is running against Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ross was a great fan of Schwarzenegger’s former rival for the action-hero crown, Sylvester Stallone. The Weekly once ran into Ross at a theater showing Rocky III. The slightly built operative squirmed and rocked in his seat during the boxing scenes, throwing phantom punches at the screen as Stallone took his usual beating before the usual heroic comeback.

L.A. Assemblyman Dario Frommer is well-aware of Ross’ aggressiveness. Frommer wants to make it illegal for a lobbyist to pitch legislators for whom he is also a political consultant.

“If Cruz wins, I’m his [Ross’] number-one target. He’s made that clear,” says Frommer, a former top aide to state Democratic chairman Art Torres, who served as political director of Davis’ 1998 gubernatorial campaign and was appointments secretary for the governor.

“Everyone thinks Cruz takes all of Richie’s advice and worships him, that he doesn’t get up in the morning without consulting Richie,” says Frommer, who has endorsed Bustamante. “I don’t know that that is true; Cruz is no neophyte.” Asked if the non-neophyte Bustamante would protect him from Ross, Frommer said he didn’t know.

Ross has tremendous clout with the Latino Legislative Caucus, having run the campaigns of many members. But he has enemies, too, who successfully pushed for former L.A. Senator Richard Polanco to play a major advisory role with Bustamante.

But the irony is that Ross and Polanco — himself a controversial pol who dropped a bid for the L.A. City Council in the wake of reports that the state paid a huge settlement to a former Polanco aide who charged the former state senator with sexual harassment — have been longtime allies. The two worked closely together in the election of L.A. Senator Richard Alarcon, who narrowly defeated veteran politician Richard Katz in a Democratic primary in 1998. Katz was the Assembly Democratic leader who engineered the party’s retaking of the Assembly in 1996 after a brief Republican interregnum. But he could not take the Assembly speakership for himself because of term limits. So the prize passed to Bustamante instead.

The budget Bustamante proposed as part of his current campaign has Ross’ fingerprints all over it. A set of notions with numbers attached, clever and evanescent — with tax hikes and painless budget “cuts” — it is designed to appeal to no more than 35 percent to 40 percent of the voters, the hardcore Democratic base that some strategists believe may be enough to hold off Schwarzenegger if McClintock takes away enough conservative Republican votes. (Bustamante completely reversed himself when he called for new tobacco taxes. He has a long history of taking money from tobacco companies and lobbyists: $40,000 came from Philip Morris and $22,500 from the Tobacco Institute. Bustamante voted against California’s ban on workplace smoking. After it passed, he voted to weaken it.)

Bustamante’s declaration of candidacy called for “tough love” but left the prison guards union (whose lucrative new contract adds hundreds of millions to the budget) and Indian casino interests (which pay no state gaming tax, compared to 7% that Las Vegas casinos pay and 25% that Indians pay in states like Connecticut), two of his biggest backers, alone. This may be his undoing. For Bustamante plans to raise millions from the flush new casinos, whose agenda is a massive expansion around California.

Indian casino tribes have poured $120 million into state political campaigns since 1998. These tribes have already contributed nearly $4 million in direct donations to Bustamante since 1993, including a $300,000 donation given from the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians, a tribe that runs a San Diego–area casino, and another $500,000 from the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians, to be laundered through an old campaign committee for lieutenant governor directly into his new campaign committee for governor. This is in contravention of the Prop. 34 campaign-finance-reform limits and in defiance of a new ruling from the Fair Political Practices Commission, which days earlier had said it was okay.

By the end of the week, after the practice was exposed, Bustamante went right ahead soliciting and receiving more big casino money for his laundry committee. On Tuesday, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians announced it will give a record $2 million to three of Bustamante’s funds.

In a career in which showing up at the right place and time has made all the difference, this may be the wrong place and the wrong time. Woody Allen left that part out.